How Do You Measure a Life?

A life sentence has not always meant a person’s natural life in North Carolina—probably. Under G.S. 14-2 as it existed for offenses committed after April 8, 1974, but before July 1, 1978, a “sentence of life imprisonment shall be considered as a sentence of imprisonment for a term of 80 years in the State’s prison.”

The General Assembly arguably enacted this provision as a corollary to the then-existing rule that life sentences became parole eligible after 20 years. Defendants sentenced prior to 1978 generally became parole eligible after serving one-fourth of their maximum prison term, and 20 is one-fourth of 80. The Court of Appeals, however, recently held in State v. Bowden, __ N.C. App. __, 668 S.E.2d 107 (2008), that under the plain language of G.S. 14-2 as it existed during that time frame, a life sentence must be considered 80 years for all purposes, including calculation of outright release date.

Not only does a life sentence from that era have an expiration date before, um, expiration, it could also theoretically be reduced from 80 to 40 years under DOC’s “day-for-day” good time credit rule for certain pre–Structured Sentencing cases. The day-for-day credit rule reduces a sentence by one day for each day the inmate serves without infraction. (The same rule still applies, by the way, for DWI sentences—regardless of whether they are served in jail or prison—to the extent that the reduction does not drop the sentence below the mandatory active time. I can post on that later if people are interested.) A life sentence could be further reduced by an additional 20 percent or so for “gain time,” depending on the quality and quantity of the inmate’s work in prison. So, a well-behaved, hard-working defendant sentenced to “life” in 1975 could theoretically reach his or her date of unconditional release before 2010.

All of this comes with a caveat. The North Carolina Supreme Court granted the State’s motion for a temporary stay in the Bowden case on November 21, 2008. 362 N.C. 683 (2008). I’ll update this post with a comment when the high court weighs in.

So how do you measure a life? If the justices agree with the Court of Appeals—and with apologies to fans of Rent—the answer is 42,048,000 minutes. Minus applicable credits, of course.